Image by Jon Newman (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Playing with Data

A virtual cult of the spreadsheet has formed, complete with gurus and initiates, detailed lore, arcane rituals – and an unshakable belief that the way the world works can be embodied in rows and columns of numbers and formulas.

I heard this quote from “A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge,” written in 1984 by Steven Levy after the introduction of spreadsheet software, in a recent episode of Planet Money titled “Spreadsheets.”

As I learn more about quantitative data analysis, I’m excited about all of the things I can do with it. I enjoy thinking about the data and trying to understand how to use it. But I’m cautious. If I learned anything from studying anthropology, it was a certain amount of skepticism about data — and quantitative data in particular. Although I’m aware that even qualitative data can be heavily manipulated, and I’m grateful for what I’m learning to do with quantitative data, I remain constantly concerned about how numbers can oversimplify, obscure, and deceive. As Levy wrote:

Yet all these benefits will be meaningless if the spreadsheet metaphor is taken too much to heart. After all, it is only a metaphor. Fortunately, few would argue that all relations between people can be quantified and manipulated by formulas. Of human behavior, no faultless assumptions – and so no perfect model — can be made.

Image by Jon Newman (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We’re born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink; our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons.

There are so many wonderful pieces to Elif Shafak’s TED talk: experiencing new cultures, expressing oneself in a foreign language, grappling with identity politics. She challenges the idea that authors — especially non-Western authors — have to write about their own identity and culture. Instead, she encourages us to see fiction as a place for imagination, a place for feelings, a place for us to escape our limited social circles and connect across identities and cultures.

In Memory of Tess (1tess)

I learned today that Tess Warn, a long-time volunteer and moderator on the support forums, passed away recently. My former coworker Jackie Dana wrote a beautiful post in Tess’s memory:

Tess, known as 1Tess on the forums, was the one and only volunteer moderator on the English support forums where I also worked. She had earned that unique role for her consistently helpful and pleasant demeanor, and she was always constructive in her approach. As happens in most online forums, such traits are rare among the “regulars” and it was no different there. She was a compassionate and friendly voice that rose above the not infrequent sour notes.

via Tess Warn: A dear woman who helped others until the very end | jackie dana.

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Kitchen Rhythm: A Year in a Parisian Pâtisserie


Two of my favorite things: baking and language.

“I think I can hear it but I can’t define it in words. Such is the problem with a manual skill, so too with a new language: how to translate your sensations through a new filter.”

Originally posted on Longreads Blog:

Frances Leech | Vintage | March 2013 | 14 minutes (3378 words)

The Longreads Exclusive below is based on Frances Leech’s ebook of the same name, published in 2013 by Vintage UK.


To make chocolate mousse, enough for 150 people, say, first whip the cream — liters and liters of it. Then, separately, whisk the egg yolks. Boil sugar and water and add to the yolks, still whisking, in a thin drizzle. Melt the chocolate, then stir, fold, and whisk everything together with some gelatin.

What is missing from this description, the bare-bones sketch in the red address book that alphabetizes all of my work recipes, is the physical sensations. When I started my apprenticeship in Paris a year ago, I learned that baking can be at once precise and vague. Measure everything to the last gram, simple enough. Harder to describe what the meringue mixture should look like when it is…

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